Advocating for access
Local woman says Chico is failing to comply with disability laws
Becky Barnes-Boers never thought she’d spend so much time being an advocate for the disabled. Then she ended up in a wheelchair.
What a life-changing experience.
The 45-year-old single mom is one of the most visible and active members of the local disabled community and a familiar sight to many in Chico. On any given day, she may be spotted downtown or on the other side of town in her battery-powered wheelchair. She’s usually accompanied by her 4-year-old son, Gabriel, who walks at her side or, oftentimes, sits sweetly on her lap, his mother’s arms wrapped around him.
Barnes-Boers moved from the Midwest to the North State back in 2004, first to Oroville, and then to Chico the next year. The harsh winters in northern Illinois were taking a toll on her physically, exacerbating the symptoms she suffers from fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and reflex sympathetic dystrophy, increasingly debilitating and painful conditions stemming from several accidents, including a couple of car crashes. Barnes-Boers learned about the area’s Mediterranean-like environs, and, without knowing a soul here, packed up her belongings and headed west.
Back then, she was getting around with the aid of a cane. But about six years ago, her conditions worsening, Barnes-Boers realized she needed a wheelchair. These days, her motorized chair is her main mode of transportation.
Barnes-Boers may appear to get around easily, if slowly, but looks can be deceiving.
This reporter’s recent walk beside her in the streets east of downtown near Lower Bidwell Park was an eye-opening experience, a window into the life of someone who relies on a wheelchair for mobility.
She struggled at times with uprooted sidewalks and with curb ramps with high, jutting transitions from crosswalk to sidewalk that caused a distinct scraping sound as the bottom of her footrests hit the concrete below. At various points, neglected shrubs and other landscaping growing over the sidewalk along private residences and the park nearly forced her into the street.
On Third Street, Gabriel ran ahead and picked up a garden hose lying across the sidewalk, where someone was watering a city tree in the landscaping nearest the street. “I’ll move it,” exclaimed the preschooler, who put the hose back once his mother had passed.
Farther along, the corner of Woodland Avenue and Cypress Street may as well have been a cliff. A steep curb met the end of the crosswalk, making the transition to the sidewalk impossible for her to maneuver. Instead, she took to the street. She does so at countless other spots in the city.
Barnes-Boers is on a mission to gain access to many of the activities able-bodied people take for granted. Things like getting home safely on sidewalks and taking her son to an event at City Plaza. In doing so, she has studied the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a federal civil-rights law prohibiting discrimination against the disabled. She has encyclopedic knowledge of it and can recite portions of its text, along with its associated terminology.
Barnes-Boers spent years as a legal assistant at a law firm, and there’s an office-like feel to her home, where she keeps countless documents related to the ADA.
For years, she has been meticulously chronicling the multitude of ways in which Chico is out of compliance with the law, reporting them to city officials and others. But for the most part, Barnes-Boers’ says, her complaints have fallen on deaf ears. And while she isn’t an attorney, if even half of what she has reported is true, it reveals an institutional failure to comply with the law.
“If, 20 years into the Americans with Disabilities Act, you don’t know it, you’re intentionally ignoring it,” she said.
Her dogged pursuit started in 2007, after she attended a public workshop of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Services Department at a privately owned, historic downtown building not easily accessed by the disabled. The city accommodated her by placing a ramp at the entrance to the building, where there is a large step, but no thought was given to the fact that the women’s restroom was not wheelchair accessible, which forced her to leave the meeting.
Looking back, Barnes-Boers wishes she had known her rights.
“I didn’t know enough to say, ‘You cannot hold a public meeting in a non-ADA-compliant building,’” she said during a recent interview at her Chico home.
But she knew that it didn’t seem right, so she started familiarizing herself with the sweeping law that former President George H.W. Bush signed just more than 22 years ago, on July 26, 1990.
She quickly learned that the ADA mandates that local government agencies with 50 or more employees undertake certain measures to aid compliance. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, this includes designating one employee as the person in charge of coordinating compliance and investigating complaints (an ADA coordinator), and having a published procedural process for members of the public who would like to file ADA complaints.
Barnes-Boers found neither at the city.
She started inquiring shortly after that public meeting and says nobody at the Chico Municipal Center could give her definitive answers. Instead, in January 2008, she was referred to an employee in the Risk Management Department, Jessica Henry, who she says blithely handed her a piece of paper, instructing her to write down all of her complaints. Barnes-Boers says she told Henry about her arthritis, and that she couldn’t write out everything. She left fuming, beyond frustrated.
“Discrimination is not frustrating; it’s an illegal federal violation,” she said. “And that’s kind of what people aren’t getting here.”
She worked with several other employees in Risk Management, but kept pressing the city to find out who the ADA coordinator was. Barnes-Boers eventually took her inquiry to City Manager Dave Burkland, and about a month later he told her that Dan Fulks, the director of Human Resources and Risk Management, was the ADA coordinator. Fulks, she said, was helpful and attentive to her concerns.
“That’s the essence of the ADA coordinator—so the disabled public has someone to go to,” she said. “A big part of this is just to be listened to and the whole thing taken seriously and understood.”
But that assistance was short lived; Fulks left his job with the city not long after.
She was subsequently referred to one person after another in Risk Management.
Then, one day, Jessica Henry told her to stop calling in her complaints. Barnes-Boers asked her to put that in writing. In a letter dated Oct. 17, 2008, Henry instructed Barnes-Boers to put her accessibility concerns in writing and direct the complaints to her (Henry), with the exception of emergency situations, during which she should call her by telephone, or call Code Enforcement in the event of her absence.
“This contact procedure will better enable the City accurately track [sic], process, and respond to your accessibility concerns,” Henry wrote.
“It needs to be recognized that the City of Chico has been very responsive to your concerns in the past, many times immediately, that were submitted by you in writing and verbally,” she continued. “This has included having the Code Enforcement division investigate and respond to over 80 areas or issues of concern relating to accessibility. Your use of the procedure outlined above will help the City to continue to address your concerns in an effective and timely manner.”
Barnes-Boers said she now realizes she should never have had any contact with Henry. The people who had helped her in Risk Management were ADA coordinators for personnel, a position that oversees complaints regarding employment, not other types of accessibility issues.
She said the city should have identified the correct ADA coordinator from the beginning, but she’s fairly certain she knows why that didn’t happen. “I don’t think they had an ADA coordinator for the public at large,” said Barnes-Boers, who had been referred to no fewer than eight people in two years’ time.
Then, in a letter dated June 2, 2010, Tom Varga, the director of the city’s Capital Project Services Department, told Barnes-Boers that the formal ADA coordinator was Fritz McKinley, the director of Building and Development Services, but that the duties had been delegated to him (Varga).
Barnes-Boers has myriad ADA complaints of multiple agencies, including the Butte County Association of Government’s B-Line transit system (about non-compliant bus-stop sites) and Chico Unified School District, among others. Most of them are related to accessibility. However, one of her other main concerns is related to ADA signage.
For years, she’s been documenting instances in which, she charges, construction companies have violated ADA law due to missing and incorrect signage at work sites on public property. Barnes-Boers says the city is the ADA-enforcing agency in Chico, but that she has not been able to compel city officials to force the companies to comply with the law.
This, she said, is true even with city projects.
In recent weeks, for example, she’s been documenting some alleged violations related to construction of the city’s First and Second streets couplet project. One such instance occurred directly in front of the CN&R offices in mid-June. Barnes-Boers stopped on a nearby city sidewalk to take photographs of the site, which was missing signage instructing the public to keep out of the area and directing them to an alternate route.
Shortly thereafter, a Chico police officer showed up and questioned her about her purpose there. What most disturbed her was that the officer knew who she was. “He said to me, ‘So, you’re the one causing trouble on East Eighth and Ninth streets.’”
That comment referred to the complaints Barnes-Boers had been filing with the city over the construction of Bidwell Park Apartments, a 38-unit affordable-housing project partially financed by city redevelopment funds. Her problem with that project stemmed from construction activities on both Eighth and Ninth streets blocking the entire shoulder of the roadway, a public right-of-way, without signage giving pedestrians an alternate route or efforts to provide a safe pathway around the work.
Someone called the police on her there, multiple times in recent months, reporting that she was endangering her child when using her wheelchair to bypass the project. Barnes-Boers says she’s been verbally abused by workers there on several occasions while photographing the site or while going by it. Meanwhile, she’s watched the same workers cordially greet other pedestrian passersby.
At one point, she asked the city to pull the company’s encroachment permits for the stretch between the roadway shoulder and the property, and also to pull its building permit. She said her concerns were not taken seriously.
“What I kept saying is, if it’s unsafe for me, it’s unsafe for everybody,” she said. “Put ADA signage up warning people not to go through there.”
That never happened. (Construction at the project is now largely out of the right-of-way.)
Barnes-Boers, who lives a few houses down from the project, filed an “ADA request for reasonable accommodation” with the city in February.
Varga, in a written response, informed Barnes-Boers that, since the roadways are a portion of Highway 32, a state route, he was deferring the issue to the state of California (i.e. Caltrans). “This State highway has limited sidewalks. Most of the highway edge is a combination of paved or gravel shoulders. …[A] shoulder is not a sidewalk and not necessarily an ADA path of travel,” he wrote.
Barnes-Boers said that may be true outside of city limits, but it’s not true in this residential portion of the city. “That’s the ADA path of travel,” she said. “That’s how I have to get through.”
Brannon Diones, who works as a lead investigator for ADAAC, a nonprofit ADA-accrediting and -consulting company contracted with Caltrans, is very familiar with Barnes-Boers.
He said the company has received hundreds of ADA requests from her, but only a small amount are within Caltrans’ jurisdiction. The others are forwarded to the city of Chico.
ADAAC contracts with state and local government agencies developing on-site accessibility surveys and ADA transition plans, and works with the public to investigate ADA requests. Diones said compliance with the law varies greatly depending on locale.
“We’ve called cities where they don’t have ADA coordinators; they don’t even know what they are,” he said.
Conversely, some municipalities, such as the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights, are completely on board with efforts to achieve compliance.
Diones said some people consider accessibility complaints a nuisance, but those same individuals should keep in mind that disabilities can happen to anyone at any time.
“If people don’t really shift their mentality when it comes to the ADA, nothing’s going to get done,” he said.
Barnes-Boers has been making her concerns more visible lately, by attending public meetings and voicing them to city leaders, always speaking calmly and distinctly and never raising her voice.
At the June 5 City Council meeting, for example, she spoke about an agenda item in which the panel was considering a change in funding sources allocated to Habitat for Humanity of Butte County for its East 19th Street subdivision in Chapmantown.
Barnes-Boers pointed out that the homes in the project, which sits down the street from her son’s preschool, are being constructed without sidewalks and curbs.
“I went down 19th Street, and you’ve not put in sidewalks and curbs. You have the street and then a gutter … and I object to that. …
“And as a disabled person, I object to no sidewalks being put in for the safety of the public in general, especially the disabled public that you are now turning around and continuing to put on the streets. I am hearing from the Chapmantown neighborhood that those are the way they want their streets—they don’t want sidewalks put in—but they don’t exclusively get to make those decisions. You need to hear from your disabled public also….”
Barnes-Boers is careful to note that her only problem with the project is its lack of safe accessibility. The same is true of her concerns surrounding the construction activities at Bidwell Park Apartments.
“Thirty-eight families deserve to live in that complex,” she said.
Barnes-Boers has madeprogress with another agency when it comes to ADA compliance.
In April, she was informed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had concluded an investigation into the Chico Unified School District based on ADA complaints she had filed with the agency.
As usual, Barnes-Boers had attempted to work with CUSD before filing her grievances. She had asked that the district provide a ramp on the north side of Chapman Elementary School, where her son attends the Head Start program, because she was forced to enter the campus by traveling upon vehicular pathways.
When the district refused to accommodate her, and instead instructed her to use the street and then the school’s parking lot to gain access, Barnes-Boers began looking for additional violations elsewhere at the school, along with the District Office on East Seventh Street, and also at the Corporation Yard, a place she had been referred to during her effort to gain access to the school.
In each case, the OCR found valid grievances.
The case has concluded with a resolution agreement between CUSD and the OCR in which the district has agreed to myriad changes to correct the issues, including repairing the gaps and cracks along the pathways leading to the Head Start classroom, and providing an accessible pedestrian route from the sidewalk at the District Office to the ADA entrance at the rear of the old building.
Currently, Barnes-Boers is awaiting word on another complaint, this one with the U.S. Department of Justice, over dozens of alleged ADA violations within the city. She filed the complaint in March as a last resort after nearly five years of attempting to work with city officials, Barnes-Boers noted.
In it, she takes the city to task: “The City of Chico condones discrimination of the public around their own job sites and does not require ADA signage to be placed at their own job sites, does not work with the disabled public to create alternate paths of travel and has not responded to or implemented my ADA Request for Reasonable Accommodation to do so submitted in 2010 and rediscussed in 2011,” reads part of the document.
Among her complaints is that the city has not adequately updated its ADA Transition Plan, an evaluation that typically determines to what extent individuals with disabilities have restricted access to city activities, policies, programs and facilities.
Chico’s plan, first implemented around 1995, covered only municipal buildings and properties. In 2009, in response to a DOJ complaint by another disabled resident, a separate document was constructed to include portions of the city’s public rights-of-way. In it, 1,800 separate locations were identified as needing corrections.
However, it did not include a reassessment of city buildings and properties. As Barnes-Boers pointed out, ADA has been updated quite a bit in the last 17 years, meaning those facilities need correcting, too.
Moreover, she maintains that there are recent city projects that haven’t been built to ADA standards, including portions of City Plaza and the newly built public restrooms in Lower Bidwell Park.
“First, we need to learn the ADA and stop building non-compliantly,” she said. “That would be the first step forward. Then we’ve got to go back and start fixing things that are non-compliant, so that everybody has access in a safe manner.”
Varga, the city’s ADA coordinator, said the city is in the process of updating its original transition plan. In the meantime, he said, the city is working to fix deficiencies. He said that the plan will not include every single issue—or, as he put it: “It’s not a grocery list of every item that needs to be addressed.”
“Really, the transition plan is a convenient way of accumulating the priorities,” he said.
The 2009 plan is also getting an update. That document, he said, did not set aside a list of ADA projects. Rather, it was designed to make sure that ADA is a part of all capital projects, including the couplet project. He pointed to other already completed major improvements, such as the Fifth Avenue project (between The Esplanade and Mangrove Avenue).
Varga sent a member of his staff to determine whether the city’s new public restrooms at the park are compliant with ADA standards, and said he can say definitively that they are. He is also looking into Barnes-Boers’ concerns about City Plaza; whether it was compliant when built, and, if that has changed, what an appropriate solution might be.
He pointed out that the ADA is constantly evolving and said it’s one of the most difficult sets of laws to keep up with. “What I thought I knew clearly six months ago has changed, and I need to update my knowledge about that,” he said.
Varga acknowledged that the city is in charge of ensuring that proper ADA signage is put up at construction projects, and maintains that, overall, this is occurring. He said there are times when the signage gets disturbed, which presents an ongoing challenge. He also said that, sometimes, Barnes-Boers’ requests go beyond what’s legally required.
“She has a set of personal preferences that she would like to see, but those aren’t necessarily ADA standards,” said Varga, who has nearly 30 years’ experience in the public-works business.
Varga confirmed that he took over the role of ADA coordinator in response to Barnes-Boers’ complaints. “She found a shortcoming, and we adapted and fixed it,” he said.
And since then, he maintains, the city has responded adequately to her concerns, pointing to extensive records of correspondence. “We do respond to her quite regularly, and sometimes she does not find the responses up to her standards,” he said.
He also maintains that the city is knowledgeable about the law and is implementing it aggressively.
Barnes-Boers thinks otherwise, and is hopeful that the DOJ complaint will resolve the issue.
However, in the meantime, she feels compelled to continue reporting alleged cases of non-compliance. Last week, she spent considerable time near the intersection of West First and Salem streets, where the roadways are torn up for one of the first portions of the downtown couplet project. She informed the city about multiple issues, including a lack of signage at certain street corners indicating an ADA path of travel, and areas cordoned off in such ways that only ambulatory pedestrians could pass through.
While there, she saw two city of Chico building inspectors on site.
Barnes-Boers said the city’s apathy has set a bad example for the private contractors it hires and has put her in a position of calling the companies herself. She doesn’t want to do that. In fact, she said she cringes each time before approaching anyone about issues she considers violations. While Barnes-Boers and Varga say they have a cordial relationship, elsewhere, she’s seen little compassion from those she’s encountered.
Many people have been extremely defensive, and oftentimes downright cruel. She’s been insulted, ignored and belittled. Still, she wants to be helpful, and is willing to work with anyone. Most important, she refuses to give up.
“I don’t want an apology,” she said. “I just want them to start taking the steps forward to correcting things.”